Thursday, February 4, 2016

Dating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ

Christ crucified, wood carving
by Manuel Alfonseca Santana
During their deportation in Babylon, the Jewish people adopted a lunar Babylonian calendar and took it with them at their return to Palestine. Ordinarily their year consisted of twelve lunar months, but as this made them lose on average eleven days every year against the solar cycle, occasionally it was necessary to introduce an intercalary month, thus some of their years had thirteen months.
At the beginning of our era there was no rigid rule for the proclamation of the intercalated months. Every year the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court) decreed whether or not an extra month would be intercalated. For this they used several criteria, first of all that the Passover celebration had to take place after the spring equinox, but if the crop had been very bad and the first fruits, to be offered in that festivity, were not mature, or if the sacrificial lambs had not grown enough, the council could decide to insert a new month, delaying a full cycle the celebration of the Passover.

These peculiarities of the Jewish calendar have been used to calculate the probable date of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. According to the Gospels, Jesus was crucified on the eve or on the day of the Passover (Friday 14 or 15 of the month of Nisan, the first month of the year). It is also known that the crucifixion took place during the rule of Pontius Pilate, who is known from other sources to have been procurator of Judea between 26 and 36 CE. The question was, therefore, to find out which 14 or 15 Nisan could have fallen on a Friday during that decade, which would give us the possible dates for the crucifixion.
The calculation is complicated, because we don’t have historical information about the introduction of additional months in those years. Considering all the possibilities, it can be concluded that 14 or 15 Nisan could have fallen on a Friday only in one of the following dates:
·         April 11th, 27 CE (14 or 15 Nisan).
·         April 7th, 30 CE (14 or 15 Nisan).
·         April 3rd, 33 CE (14 Nisan).
·         April 23rd, 34 CE (15 Nisan).
Year 27 is eliminated because it is too early: according to the Gospel of Luke (3,1-2), John the Baptist began preaching in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which corresponds to 28 or 29 CE. Year 34 seems too late, because the conversion of St. Paul would have taken place on that year. So we are left with just two possible dates in years 30 and 33.
The preferences of historians are divided between both. In an article published in Nature, Humphreys and Waddington, of Oxford University, use the following argumentation to settle for second. In the book of Acts (2.16 to 20), Apostle Peter says the following, referring to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ:
This is what the prophet [Joel] was saying: “...The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the day of the Lord comes, that great and terrible Day.”
The darkening of the sun on the day of the crucifixion is mentioned by several Gospels (Mt. 27.45, Mk. 15.33, Lk. 23.45). It could not be a solar eclipse, which takes place only during a new moon, while Passover is always celebrated on the full moon, but it might have been a dust storm. As for the moon turned into blood, Humphreys and Waddington propose a lunar eclipse, for the eclipsed moon turns red and seems to have become blood.
Lunar eclipse, Tel-Aviv, 2015-9-28
Was there a lunar eclipse on the day of the crucifixion, and is that what the words of Peter mean? Humphreys and Waddington have calculated the dates of all moon eclipses visible in Jerusalem between 26 and 36 CE. Just one of them took place in the vicinity of the Passover, on April 3rd, 33 CE. According to them, this would be the most likely date for the crucifixion.
The question cannot be decided. On the one hand, it is unclear that this eclipse was actually visible in Jerusalem. Humphreys and Waddington think that it could have been, just while the moon was rising above the horizon. However, if a dust storm had just taken place, visibility would not be good. Moreover, even without the eclipse, the words the moon will be turned into blood could also apply to April 7th, 30 CE. If a dust storm obscured the sun from the sixth to the ninth hour (from noon until three p.m.) the atmosphere would be loaded with dust at six, when the full moon appeared on the eastern horizon. The presence of this dust would redden the moonlight. The phrase would apply on both dates, so this reasoning by Humphreys and Waddington is not entirely convincing.


Manuel Alfonseca

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